I got rejected. “There won’t be any more calls for principle candidates.”, said the USEFP representative on the phone. As the realization sinked in, so drowned my hopes and dreams for a better PhD position. What was I thinking? I didn’t stand a chance. I was a LUMS graduate (known to produce the biggest fraction of Fulbright scholars each year) but, the rest had something I didn’t. They had done loads with their lives, teaching, social service, travelling. I was a misfit in my school and I had always felt it.

Before coming to LUMS for my Masters, I had done a BS in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of the Punjab. I was blessed to have been the highest scoring (citing my professor here) gold medalist in the 10 year history of my school. I was proud of my senior year research project that I had designed myself (a drug to cure three intertwined diseases; hepatitis C, diabetes and obesity). Displaying my poster at two conferences held at a national level (at one of which I was representing my school) and receiving a lot of attention from academic society, bolstered my confidence as a jejune scientist. But the moment I entered LUMS my perception of my capability, shattered as I witnessed every single LUMS graduate performing infinitely better than I was. My worst nightmare was realized , I had failed, I scored bad, the class laughed at my answers; I had basically hit the rock bottom of my academic career and since I had (at least in my cognizance) fallen from a great height, it hurt more than ever. I remember my father trying to talk me out of my MS degree before I suffered from a nervous breakdown.

I than realized that the worst had happened, and since there was no going further down, I should make the most out of LUMS. I arranged for research internships, worked as hard as I could and made a point to attend all the social events. Letting go of the stress alone was enough to improve my performance to the extent that I came out of my invisibility into the light. I had supportive professors who encouraged me and helped me break out of the vicious circle of depression following failure. I jumped at every opportunity LUMS had to offer. I was selected as teaching assistant for a total of 6 courses as well as an instructor for the prestigious LUMS National Outreach Program (and where there were no advertised positions, I created and volunteered for them). I graduated with a distinction (Dean’s honor roll award) and a second place in my program. My supervisor offered me a place in PhD program which I accepted and deferred because I was getting married in a few months. I worked as research staff while I was waiting to join as a student. Sadly though, my professor did not have a place in his lab then and was predicting not to have a vacancy till a couple of years. I was devastated. My new family wanted me to stay in Lahore and I had just been struck off from the best school in the city. I had run out of fortune yet again.

I rejoined Punjab University but everything appeared too slow and too old in comparison to my last school. The research was outdated and thus pointless. Lucky for me, I had applied to Fulbright over my gap year and now I had all my hopes rested on the decision.  Despite of my average SOP, a poor GRE and a horrible interview I thought I would make it, since a lot of my peers had made it through. And then came the day when my thumb went numb scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed cluttered with Fulbright acceptances. I had not received any call.

For me, Fulbright application was the easier way and since I had not qualified for it, it was pointless to even think about investing in regular application cycle. But what other option did I have? It became about survival as a scientist. It was worth a shot. I got a lot of “You won’t make it with that GRE”,” you don’t have enough time”, “it is pointless for a married girl to apply” and “adjust in PU already!”. All of those sounds did echo in my head when I had to fill out a bunch of application due the same date. As a Fulbright scholar, a placement officer would have taken all the trouble for me, I would think (also since I was dragging a PhD with it). 3-4 weeks later I received a flattering email from Ohio State University (OSU), inviting me for a Skype interview. It was my only chance and I was to hold on to it. I studied all the research being conducted at OSU especially the current interest of the professors on my interview panel and of course, the current developments in my field. The interview went fine and I was in denial when I received an acceptance in two days. Then again, I received a lot of “big deal! It’s a low ranked school (which is not even close to reality, its rank 18 in epigenetics) form people. My in-laws weren’t ready to send me so far away, unless I got into top 10 ranked schools. Later I received interview invites from University of Illinois Urbana Champagne (UIUC), University of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and KAUST. The latter 3 asked me to prepare a presentation explaining my research background and PhD proposal. I received an acceptance form all these schools within a day or two (including an improved offer form OSU, with increased stipend) except KAUST (who later called me for an interview in Dubai as the final step in selection process) and Cambridge (where the professor is trying to arrange funds for me at the moment). I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to have made it to Oxford (rated Time #1 and QS #3; and yes I do have a permission to leave by my in-laws now). I do not believe I have a “success story”, my life is filled with bumpy starts and doubtful journeys. I did profoundly bad at school until I met a great teacher in grade 4, got average grades in FSc but made it to one of the most competitive programs at PU, struggled during my MS and after that , I had no place to go for a PhD. But if anyone wants to know what I learned, here are a few things:

  1. Research makes/breaks you. Jump at every chance to work on new stuff. My diverse research background did wonders for me.

  2. It’s always worth applying. Give it all you got!

  3. Update yourself on science. Read recent papers; I cannot stress it enough.

  4. People lie, all-the-time. They will tell you they have a zillion acceptances when they don’t. Don’t worry. Keep your head down and work.

  5. Join scholar den! Since GRE and applications, are always something done part-time it is important to be surrounded by people involved in similar activity, motivating you and keeping you on your toes. Plus they have the finest collection of study material. Mentors took my mock interviews and went through my SOP. It is very helpful to get multiple opinions on these.

  6. And super-cliché… Don’t forget to dream. Dream big. Aim high. And yes there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Always. May be later, if not now.

I hope you found it useful and relatable. Sorry for the long read.

– Komal Malik